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Let Kansas be Kansas, in all its beauty and nuance

Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Jeffrey Ann Goudie is a Topeka-based freelance writer and book critic.

Last fall, eating out with friends, my pal Marcia asked us sister expats how we felt when we first moved to Kansas. Except for me, all expressed negative reactions, although each di lei has made her peace with her adopted state di lei. I had moved from Texas.

“I felt like I took a step up,” I said.

“What did you like about Kansas?” my friend Harriet asked.

My easy answer: “Deciduous trees.”

I was an expat but connected to Kansas through my late maternal grandmother. I loved the trees that shed their leaves, along with the green rolling hills around my grandmother’s farmhouse. Mind you, my grandma was not a landowner. She rented the bottom floor of a farmhouse off what is now the thoroughfare of a Johnson County suburb.

My love of northeast Kansas is braided with my affection for my spunky grandmother.

At that time, Hollie worked at the old Rexall Drug in the Mission Shopping Center. In a crisp waitress uniform, my 5-foot grandmother presided as assistant manager of the lunch counter, alongside her young friend di lei Ronnie, the soda jerk. Hollie dyed her hair henna under the influence of her di lei best friend di lei at the drugstore, Willie, the beauty and make-up department manager.

My mother took us to see her mother on summer trips from our West Texas home of Midland, where my father worked as a geologist. Midland saw sparse rainfall, and although my Kansas City, Missouri, native father planted fir trees and a water-hungry willow in our yard, Midland was flat, dry, and dusty, scraped by tumbleweeds. In The Land of the High Sky, few trees interrupted the wide view.

For many folks who live on the coasts, Kansas and Texas appear much the same: retrogressive politically and uninteresting geographically. But residents know our states at the granular level.

Southwest from the oil capital of Midland is Marfa, the hip artist mecca. Texas has the exurban sprawl of Dallas and Houston, but also the more striking vastness of Big Bend National Park. The state capitol in Austin is overseen by one of the most hellbent conservative governors in the United States. But Austin and Houston are among the most racially diverse, politically liberal populations in the nation.

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Kansas also defies stereotyping. The state is not uniformly flat. Gentle hills surround Topeka, where I live, and steeper hills surround and intersect Lawrence. West of Topeka, the Flint Hills contain the country’s largest remaining tallgrass prairie ecosystem. Our Smoky Hills sport rugged sandstone and limestone bluffs. Spare, beautiful chalk formations rise up in Western Kansas, remnants of an inland sea.

Nor is Kansas bland. Lawrence, Topeka, Kansas City and Wichita have storied traditions in barbecue and Mexican food. Garden City and other southwestern Kansas towns are enriched by immigrants working in the meatpacking and service industries. Thirty-five languages are spoken in Garden City public schools. Topeka is home to the national park celebrating the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawing segregated schools. As for racial diversity, both my widely spaced children attended Topeka High Schoolwhich has a majority minority population.

The geographies of my native state and my adopted state influence our politics. The sheer size of Texas spawns a bigger-and-better swagger. Kansas, a rectangle in the center of the country, radiates a common-sense, level-headed attitude.

A month after the expat dinner I asked a Topeka friend who grew up in the Dallas area what she saw as the difference between Texas and Kansas.

“I used to think Kansas was progressive,” said Marion. “Now, not so much.”

I understand her sentiment. Just as Kansas is subtly beautiful, its politics have historically been nuanced. Founded by abolitionists, Kansas has mostly resisted the fringes of the extreme far right. In line with a progressive tradition of women in politics, Laura Kelly is our third female governor. Kansas boasts a history of leadership in public health (think Dr. Samuel J. Crumbine of “Don’t Spit on the Sidewalk“Fame) and mental health (the Menninger Clinic was founded in Topeka). The Kansas Supreme Court in 2019 ruled that the state’s constitution protected women’s right to abortion.

But if Kansas has historically been complicated, subtle and nuanced, it is now caught in the maw of fearmongering legislators who want to turn back the clock, ignoring science, diversity and women’s right to reproductive autonomy.

I can let Texas be Texas – bigger, badder. But I don’t want Kansas to become a cruder, more simplistic state, shaped by punitive, restrictive laws. Let Kansas be Kansas in all its vaunted practicality.

Step up, Kansas, so I can still feel like I stepped up when I moved here.

Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. For information, including how to submit your own commentary, click here.

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